China will send three astronauts into orbit on Thursday, the country’s first crewed mission in five years.
Astronauts Ni Haisheng, Liu Boming and Tang Hongbo will head to an under-construction space station on the Shenzhou-12 spacecraft, which will hitch a ride atop a state-affiliated Long March-2F rocket. Global Times Reported.
The launch is expected at 9:22 a.m. local time (9:22 p.m. ET Wednesday) from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, about 900 miles west of Beijing.
Astronauts will spend three months in the space station’s Tianhe module, the core module that will reach Earth orbit in April. During their stay, the crew, two of whom have already been to space, will prepare for the arrival of additional modules.
China is aiming to complete construction of the new space station by the end of next year and will use it to conduct science experiments in microgravity conditions – just like NASA uses the International Space Station (ISS). China’s station is orbiting Earth about 20 miles below the ISS, which is usually located about 250 miles above Earth.
China’s space station is likely to remain operational for at least 10 years, so it could dismantle the older ISS, which some have suggested could be taken out of service around 2030.
This week’s crew visit is the latest in a string of high-profile space missions by China as the country seeks to become a major player in the field of space exploration.
Recent launches overseen by China’s National Space Administration include a mission to Mars that recently placed its first rover on the Martian surface. It successfully completed a lunar mission in late 2020 that brought moon rocks to Earth.